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The Power of Humble Things

Dr. Laurette Olson Talks about Her Work and Iona’s New OT Program

Laurette Olson, Ph.D, OTR/L, and fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) had a life-changing experience early in her career. While working at New York Hospital with children with psychiatric disabilities, she realized that in order to create an effective therapy plan, she needed to observe her young clients in their home environments and not just in a clinical setting. This proximity gave her insights that enabled her to introduce individualized interventions that changed the lives of her clients.

Laurette Olson, Ph.D, OTR/L

By spending time in the home, she was able to observe the child in his/her relationships with parents and other members of the family. This was when Dr. Olson had a revelation that guided the future of her career. She learned that not only was the child impaired in his/her relationships, but the parents, too, were often unable to interact meaningfully with their child. In some cases, parents’ expectations were so low, or their confidence in them-selves to connect with their child so fragile, that they made few or no attempts to communicate with the child. In other cases, well-meaning family members thought it was their responsibility to insist on some form of response from their child. But at-tempting to force the child to engage often only pushed the child further away and into deeper isolation.

Dr. Olson saw an opportunity to help her clients by helping their parents. She started a parent-child group where activities were available for the child and parent to participate in together. A simple art project where the parent and worked together with materials to create one final product gave both the parent and child an experience of cooperation, collaboration and success. Dr. Olson helped parents bring these kinds of activities to their homes, so they and their children had a canvas on which to enrich their relationship.

It was this work in parent-child occupation-based groups that earned Dr. Olson her fellowship with AOTA. “I am honored to be recognized with this award,” said Dr. Olson. “And I am very pleased that the award specifically acknowledges my work addressing the mental health needs of children and their families, as it has been a special focus of my occupational therapy practice, research and teaching for more than 25 years. I spent the early years of my career developing, leading and co-leading parent-child activity groups and children’s groups at the New York Hospital Westchester Division in White Plains.”

One of Dr. Olson’s favorite lessons to her students is that “humble things can be powerful.” She said, “The art project might have seemed humble, but it was significant for the parents and children in that group. OT is about the roles and activities that occupy a person’s life. Some of these are simple activities, such as eating, using a table, getting into and out of a room, but these simple activities allow a person to participate more in his/her life.”

The importance of humble things is one of the important lessons Olson looks forward to imparting to students in the new OT program that she developed for Iona College. “As the first OT program director at Iona, I have the opportunity to take all that I have learned across my career as a clinician and an academic and apply it to building a new OT program that prepares the next generation of occupational therapy clinicians.”

Dr. Olson saw an opportunity to help her clients by helping their parents. “Parents and children who have experienced trauma benefit from opportunities where they are supported and can engage with each other in play and activities. I envision supporting Iona OT students in developing parent-child activity groups in collaboration with local community organizations.”

“Iona’s program is unique in several ways,” Dr. Olson explained. “One is the collaboration we’ll have with the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Our students will be thinking about a person’s emotional and physical needs. What equipment is needed? Can the equipment be adapted according to who the user is? Every field has to think about innovation and having the Hynes Institute here on campus to collaborate with us as we think about and develop innovations in OT is very exciting.”

Dr. Olson also looks forward to partnering with the Iona College Speech and Hearing Clinic. “I want to create opportunities for OT students to collaborate with the students in the Communication Disorders Program. Interprofessional relationships are so important.”

She plans to reach out to local community organizations that provide services for parents and children who have experienced trauma such as domestic abuse or homelessness. “Iona has always reached out to the community, and that will extend to our OT program. Women and children at shelters have experienced trauma, and trauma can create barriers in communication. I envision developing a parent-child play group to help overcome some of these problems.

We are excited to build partnerships with communities within and around Iona College so that our OT students are engaged and serve as they learn, and by graduation are ready to lead, innovate and prosper as occupational therapists in the 21st century.”

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